Overcoming Fear in Open Water Swimming

Part 2 of 9 – Separate Phantoms From Real Fears

We want to take a daunting or even a seemingly insurmountable challenge and break it down into small, more easily conquered pieces. This is a simple approach to tackling all kinds of overwhelming tasks. (Check out this essay on Zen Habits about Achieving Great Things in Small Steps). First, let’s separate fears into two categoies:

  1. Rational Fears (those that are based in fact, truth, reality and we feel have a healthy fear-of-real-danger reaction)
  2. Irrational Fears (we feel intense fear, yet it does not present danger to us in proportion to the amount of fear we feel)

Whether rational or irrational, fear is experienced as real emotional and physiological reactions in our body and mind- chemicals start surging through our system triggering body and mental sensations. Fear makes us suffer and compels us to “DO SOMETHING!” whether that fear is reasonable or not, whether the reaction is reasonable or not. So while we are in the process of removing fear, we still need to develop skills for managing the reactions in our body and mind when it comes up, and for making good decisions in the midst of it.

List Your Irrational Fears

Let’s look at some irrational fears. Irrational fears in open-water may be things like:

  • The depth or vastness of open-water
  • Dangerous animals (that don’t exist in those waters)
  • Sensory deprivation (muffled sound, murky water, no solid surface to hold)
  • Claustrophobia in murky water
  • Drowning (when a person has skill to prevent it)
  • Isolation
  • “The Unkown”
  • And many more for sure…

We want to separate fears that are based on facts and truth, things that we should have a healthy respect for, from those things that are not backed up by reality. We likely need to deal with them differently.

It’s All In The Mind

For example, let’s take the fear of Deep Water. ‘Deep’ is a relative word. The guy who recently swam 3 hours over the 8000 meter deep Palau Trench  swam over DEEP water, the deepest there is. But what is the actual danger compared to swimming over 2 meters of water in the Palau Island lagoon? This swim is sensational because the realization that the depth below him in that moment was deeper than Mt Everest is high blows the mind and triggers a lot of intimidation! But Andy did not have any actual increased physical challenges because of the location over the trench itself- just in the mind.

There is the fact that being in water deeper than one can firmly stand in is ‘deep’ and dangerous for someone who cannot swim sufficiently. But for someone who can swim and can reach a resting place well within their swimming range, there is little difference to their swimming ability whether the water is 2 meters or 2000 meters deep. It’s a perception of danger, not the fact of it. It has been said, “Perception IS reality.” 8000 meter deep water feels dangerous but it is not anymore dangerous than 2 meter deep water- but that in itself is enough to make the swimmer’s experience more dangerous as the body reacts to the sensation of fear and affects the decision-making processes.

Manage Reactions To Fear

This is why we need to also learn how to manage the feelings of fear even while we train to remove fear. A rational fear within the concept of ‘Deep Water’ would be the concern for boats, creatures, currents, or a place to rest within reach- it is not Deep Water itself that is the danger, but real dangers that are associated with or present in Deep Water. Deep Water does not buoy up nor pull a person under any more than shallow water does. Deep water over the Palau Trench has the exact same properties as the shallow water over the Palau Island lagoon.

So make a list and then take a second look at your list of fears to see if they are really based on facts or fantasy, or just ‘what if…” Put them into their appropriate categories. Have a friend help you reason through them- when you hear yourself, or someone else describe them out loud it will be easier to tell if they are rational or phantoms in your imagination. Go ahead, and start working on your own list. We’ll talk more about what we can do with them in the next essay.

Here are the topics covered in this series:


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